Monthly Archives: April 2016

Boeing moves to block Russians from selling Sea Launch

In a reaction to news that the Russians have a potential buyer for Sea Launch, Boeing has sued to block the sale.

In a motion for a preliminary injunction filed with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California April 2, Boeing argued that a sale of Sea Launch could hinder its ability to collect on a summary judgment issued last year against Energia of at least $300 million. “If Energia succeeds in selling these assets and moving all of the proceeds thereof to Russia, without paying the hundreds of millions of dollars that it owes, it would unquestionably complicate Boeing’s collection efforts,” the company’s lawyers stated in the court filing.

Energia has refused to pay that $300 million. However, since Sea Launch’s floating launch platform remains docked in California, Boeing retains a great deal of leverage in this legal dispute. I expect the court will eventually put a lock on those assets until the Russians pay up.

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Russia denies that Proton upper stage failed after launching ExoMars

At a press conference today the head of Roscosmos today countered claims that some failure had occurred after ExoMars was placed on its course to Mars.

Briefing reporters in Moscow, Igor A. Komarov reiterated statements made by Proton prime contractor Khrunichev Space Center of Moscow, saying the Breeze-M upper stage separated ExoMars without incident and then proceeded with the standard passivation and collision-avoidance maneuvers.

Komarov said he had seen photos taken from a Brazilian ground telescope that appeared to show small objects in the vicinity of the Breeze-M stage and ExoMars. “I do have these pictures, provided by the Brazilian observatory, showing the ExoMars spacecraft surrounded by some dimly illuminated objects reportedly related to the upper stage,” Komarov said.

“Telemetry and other objectively verifiable data available to us, covering the entire time from the separation and the contamination and collision avoidance maneuvers to the passivation of the upper stage, show that all these steps have been performed successfully, without any anomalies,” Komarov said. “There is absolutely no indication of an upper-stage explosion or breakup.”

The uncertainty will only be settled in the next few weeks, when engineers activate all of ExoMars instruments. Should they all be working as expected, then it will likely be that nothing had happened to the Briz-M upper stage, as Roscosmos claims. If not, then Russia has a problem, since it depends on that stage for future Proton commercial launches and will not know what went wrong here.

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TSA wastes $1.4 million

Government marches on! The TSA spent $1.4 million to develop software that does the exact same thing as flipping a coin.

The “randomizer” app itself cost $336,000, the rest of the funds most likely went towards iPads themselves, Rare reports. There were four bids total for the project and IBM won the project. The app’s purpose is to eliminate potential bias when a TSA agent tells passengers which line to go to. Currently on the iTunes app store, there are multiple free coin flip apps which perform the same process as the TSA’s “randomizer.”

The corruption here reeks. Shut the whole thing down, and not only would we be safer, we would each have more wealth to make our lives better.

In a related story, the Department of Homeland Security has paid almost $20 million in salaries to corrupt employees who they can’t fire, so they pay them to do nothing.

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Close encounter with a dust devil

dust devil near Opportunity

Cool image time! On March 31st, as the Mars rover Opportunity took an image of the tracks it left behind as it attempted to climb the steepest slope it has yet attempted, it unexpectedly captured a nearby dust devil. The image to the right is a cropped version of that image

Be sure and take a look at the original image. Not only is the dust devil clearly imaged, showing it to be intense enough that it casts a shadow, the image gives a very good sense of the steepness of that slope. It is not surprising that Opportunity had problems getting up that hill, and eventually had to retreat because it couldn’t get to its target rock formation.

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Using ICBMs to lower launch costs

The competition heats up: Orbital ATK is lobbying Congress to lift a ban on the use of decommissioned ICBM missiles for commercial launches.

Orbital ATK is pressing U.S. lawmakers to end a 20-year ban on using decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) for launching commercial satellites and the effort has raised concern among companies that have invested millions of dollars in potential rival rockets. Orbital Vice President Barron Beneski said in an interview on Friday that the company was pushing Washington to get the ban lifted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act that sets defense policy for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. The missiles were idled by nuclear disarmament treaties between the United States and Russia in the 1990s.

The company wants to use the solid rocket motors in the surplus missiles to increase the capability of their Minotaur 4 rocket, designed for the small satellite market. Interestingly, Virgin Galactic, who is aiming for this same smallsat market with its LaunchOne rocket, is protesting, and has even garnered the lobbying support of the industry’s trade organization..

“It’s a dangerous precedent when the government tries to inject itself in the commercial marketplace. It can be disruptive, and not for the right reasons,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington DC-based trade organization, said in an interview on Thursday.

Orbital ATK is not asking for exclusive use, so other companies could also obtain surplus missiles for their own use. However, the ATK in Orbital ATK’s name comes from the half of the company that before the merger was an expert in using solid rockets for space. This gives Orbital an advantage here that the other companies do not have, and explains their protests.

Nonetheless, I say tough. The government should surplus these rockets, and let the competitive chips fall where they may. Anything that lowers the cost to put payloads in orbit cannot be a bad thing for the launch industry, as it will serve to increase the number of customers that industry will have and thus help to increase everyone’s sales figures.

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Misuse revealed of vomit comet at NASA

It appears that, stuck with the “vomit comet” airplane that they no longer had much use for, NASA managers tried to justify its existence and budget by assigning it tasks for which it and its crew were not designed or trained to do.

The unorthodox use of the C-9 aircraft was driven, according to the complaints, by a desire at the high levels of the agency to prove the Vomit Comet was of practical use. Apparently, it didn’t work—the C-9 aircraft program was defunded and shut down in 2014.

Since 1959, NASA has used a variety of aircraft to simulate the weightlessness of space in order to train astronauts and perform basic experiments in zero gravity. From 2005 to 2014, the C-9, built in 1970, became one of NASA’s primary Vomet Comets. According to documents uncovered by Motherboard using the Freedom of Information Act (embedded at the bottom of this article) show that the Vomit Comet was used on at least two occasions for purposes other than simulating space flight, while still labeling the missions “crew training.” In 2013, the agency officially looked into having the plane reclassified to run these types of missions.

In one of these cases, the plane was flown to Greenland without the proper equipment or training for the crew, and experienced what was described by crew as “a near fatal crash.” It didn’t crash, but the crew apparently feared for their lives.

The program was shut down in 2014 with the operations handed over to private companies. Now if NASA needs to train astronauts, they simply hire these companies, which make the bulk of their money flying private missions, something NASA wasn’t allowed to do.

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Russia schedules first Vostochny launch

The competition heats up: Roscosmos has scheduled April 27 as the date for the first launch from its new spaceport in Vostochny.

I do wish them luck. I don’t think the Russians will be very successful at competing in the new private launch industry that is beginning to emerge, centered as they are on Soviet-style, top-down, giant government-run organizations, but I still hope they succeed at whatever they attempt in space. As far as I am concerned, the more the merrier.

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Evanescence – Going Under

An evening pause: Some modern music, to remind us that there is a culture out there that is very different than the tiny geek-oriented engineering world my readers like. In watching this very nicely produced music video, I was most struck by the vision the singer has of her audience. I wonder thus what her audience thinks of her and themselves, especially when this video has been viewed almost 70 million times.

Hat tip Wayne DeVette.

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Florida passes law outlawing theft by government

Good news: Florida’s Republican governor today signed a law that forbids state police from seizing any property from any citizen unless they actually arrest and charge that person with a crime.

The big deal with this particular reform is that, in most cases, Florida police will actually have to arrest and charge a person with a crime before attempting to seize and keep their money and property under the state’s asset forfeiture laws. One of the major ways asset forfeiture gets abused is that it is frequently a “civil”, not criminal, process where police and prosecutors are able to take property without even charging somebody with a crime, let alone convicting them. This is how police are, for example, able to snatch cash from cars they’ve pulled over and claim they suspect the money was going to be used for drug trafficking without actually finding any drugs.

I should also note that getting this law written and passed was spear-headed by the Republicans in Florida’s legislature, though Democrats there also supported it. I note this not to imply that Republican politicians are great, which they routinely are not, but to note that of the two parties, in recent years it has generally been the Republicans who have opposed asset forfeiture, which I like to call theft-by-government.

Sadly, the Republicans were key players in getting this kind of policy legalized in the first place.

In both cases, it is really the voters who to blame, or to be credited. When the laws were passed allowing police the right to confiscate private property, the voters cheered, thinking such actions would help stop the drug trade (which they were encouraging by buying the drugs). Politicians responded to the voters, and passed the laws, tweaking them as power-hungry politicians do to make them work to the government’s favor, not the citizens. Now, having realized how bad these laws are, the voters are electing politicians who want to remove the laws. That pressure is resulting in laws like this.

Milton Friedman explained this process quite wisely many years ago.

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Russia insures first Vostochny launch

In the heat of competition: Russia’s space agency Roscosmos has obtained insurance for the first launch from Vostochny, covering the rocket and the launch facilities it will use.

This story tells us more about Russia’s present circumstances than the situation at Vostochny. Normally, government space agencies self-insure. Russia, however, is having serious economic problems, and I suspect that the managers there have recognized that if this launch fails and the launchpad is damaged badly, they don’t have the cash to quickly rebuild it. Granted, the insurance itself will probably cost them a lot of money they also don’t have, but considering the significant quality control problems the Russian aerospace industry has had in recent years, combined with the corruption that has surrounded the construction at Vostochny, they are probably wise to cover themselves in the not unlikely chance that something goes wrong.

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Video of Saturday’s New Shepard flight

Blue Origin has released video of its New Shepard test flight on Saturday, once again in a slick edited presentation rather than raw video of the flight itself. I have embedded this video below the fold.

As promised, the propulsion module came down at full speed until only a few seconds before impact, then fired its engines and gently slowed, then hovered, then touched down without harm. The long shot of it coming down is especially breathtaking.
» Read more

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New Shepard flies again, for the third time

The competition heats up: On Saturday Blue Origin successfully launched and landed its reusable New Shepard suborbital capsule/rocket spacecraft

The vehicle lifted off from the company’s test site shortly after 11 a.m. Eastern time, according to a series of tweets by company founder Jeff Bezos. The vehicle’s propulsion module, the same one that flew earlier test flights in November and January, made a successful powered landing, he said. Its crew capsule, flying without people on board, parachuted to a safe landing. … The vehicle reached a peak altitude of nearly 103.4 kilometers, slightly above the “von Karman line” frequently used as the boundary of space and similar to previous test flights.

This flight also carried some science experiments, demonstrating that Blue Origin’s customers will not be limited merely to space tourists.

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New Shepard to fly this weekend

The competition heats up: Jeff Bezos indicated today on Twitter that the next New Shepard flight will be this weekend.

“Working to fly again tomorrow,” Blue Origin founder and Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos tweeted on Friday. “Same vehicle. Third time.” Adding to the intrigue, Bezos said there was a higher chance of a crash on the upcoming unmanned test flight. During its descent, the booster’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine will re-light closer to the ground — just 3,600 feet up — and at higher thrust than before.

“Pushing the envelope,” said Bezos. “Impact in 6 sec if engine doesn’t restart & ramp fast.”

I will be out caving this weekend, so my reactions will have to wait until I return on Sunday night. Should be quite exciting however, especially as this will be third flight into space for this ship/rocket, a first as far as I know in space travel. There have been some vehicles reused, but I don’t remember any that reached space and were reused more than once.

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Sierra Nevada favors Alabama for Dream Chaser’s commercial port

The competition heats up: At a workshop in Alabama this week Sierra Nevada’s vice president indicated that though the company has not yet finalized its decision, it is strongly leaning to picking Huntsville as the commercial spaceport for its Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, being built to ferry cargo to ISS.

“There was a leap of faith on the Huntsville side that we would be a company that could get this vehicle built and start servicing the space station…,” Sierra Nevada Vice President John Roth said Thursday. “Yes, we have been approached by other airports for ventures. We’re not moving forward at this time with any of those. Right now, Huntsville is the only community we’re moving forward with a (landing) license on.”

A preliminary local study identified four hurdles to landing Dream Chaser at the Huntsville International Airport: required licenses for the craft and airport, environmental impact approval, Federal Aviation Administration approval of the landing path and possible runway damage.

Why do I sense the unseen hand of porkmeister Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) in this story? Could it be that one of the reasons NASA finally included Dream Chaser in its cargo contract was that the company had not only chosen the Alabama-based Atlas 5 rocket for its launch vehicle but was also courting Alabama for its commercial base, and Shelby had made it clear behind the scenes that he wanted that business? Could it be that Sierra Nevada is now returning the favor, having gotten the contract?

Don’t get me wrong. I think it was a good choice for NASA to give that contract to Sierra Nevada. I just think it important to note how giving some of our power away to politicians allows them to wield that power over us, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes against it, but always to make themselves more powerful. In the end, giving that power away is never a good option.

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Opportunity takes a spin

In attempting several times this past week to climb the steepest ever tried by a rover on Mars and failing, Opportunity has moved on to a new less challenging target.

The rover’s tilt hit 32 degrees on March 10 while Opportunity was making its closest approach to an intended target near the crest of “Knudsen Ridge.”

Engineers anticipated that Opportunity’s six aluminum wheels would slip quite a bit during the uphill push, so they commanded many more wheel rotations than would usually be needed to travel the intended distance. Results from the drive were received in the next relayed radio report from the rover: The wheels did turn enough to have carried the rover about 66 feet (20 meters) if there had been no slippage, but slippage was so great the vehicle progressed only about 3.5 inches (9 centimeters). This was the third attempt to reach the target and came up a few inches short.

The rover team reached a tough decision to skip that target and move on.

Having operated thirteen years longer than originally planned, the science and engineering team that operates the Mars rover Opportunity are increasingly willing to try more risky things. For example, the valley the rover is in, called Marathon Valley, is actually an east-west slice through the rim of 14-mile-wide Endeavour Crater. Traveling into that slice towards the crater’s interior is a far riskier trip than ever dreamed of by Opportunity’s designs more than a decade ago.

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Looking back at Comet 67P/C-G

Comet 67P/C-G backlit

Cool image time! As part of its research plan, Rosetta has been moved outward from Comet 67P/C-G for the next few weeks in order to better study its coma and tail. In this new position, engineers were able to maneuver the spacecraft so that it was flying about 600 miles farther from the Sun and could look back and see the Sun being eclipsed by the comet.

Thanks to the combination of a long, four-second exposure, no attenuation filter and a low-gain setting on the analogue signal processor of NAVCAM (a setting that is used to image bright targets), the image reveals the bright environment of the comet, displaying beautiful outflows of activity streaming away from the nucleus in various directions. It is interesting to note hints of the shadow cast by the nucleus on the coma below it, as well as a number of background stars sprinkled across the image.

In the next week the spacecraft will move back in close to the comet.

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